Rescuing a hero from oblivion

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 26, 2024

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeI first encountered Philip Henry Douglin when I wrote Beyond Boundaries: The Intellectual Tradition of Trinidad and Tobago in the Nineteenth Century (2003). Since then I have been gathering information on Douglin at research centres such as the Watson Collection at Oxford University, the British Archives at Kew in London, and the T&T Archives in Port of Spain. Yet I knew I had to go to Barbados before I completed my biography on him.

Born of enslaved parents in Scotland, Barbados, in 1845, Douglin gravitated to the church which his mother loved. He attended one of the primary schools that was erected to educate the enslaved and their children. In 1862, he entered Codrington College, and studied under Rev Richard Rawle, principal of Codrington and first bishop of Trinidad. Rawle remained his mentor for the rest of his life.

In 1867, after qualifying for Holy Orders, the West Indian Church sent him to Rio Pongas, West Africa, as a missionary where he served for 19 years. In 1886, tired of the debilitating climate of West Africa and his many bouts with malaria, he came to Trinidad as a pastor of St Clement’s Church in St Madeleine. Bishop Rawle was responsible for bringing him here.

Douglin was also a social activist. He involved himself in the Emancipation celebration, and in 1888 gave one of the most sophisticated analyses of the psychological effects of slavery on the psyche of Africans. He became one of Sylvester Williams’s chief lieutenants when Williams came to Trinidad in 1901 to set up a branch of the Pan African Association. Douglin died in 1902.

In January I went to Codrington College to do more research on Douglin’s early life. Although I found interesting information there, Dr Noel Titus, a former principal of Codrington College, urged me to consult the “Guide to Records in the Barbados Manuscript Collections” at the Barbados Archive where, he said, I was likely to find more information on Douglin.

He cited specifically the “West Indian Church Association for the Furtherance of the Gospel in Pongas Mission Minutes, 1850-1960 from Bishop Court Diocese Record Collection”. That collection was a gold mine of information.

I returned to the Barbados Archive on June 5 to continue my research in that collection. It contained the minutes of the West Indian Church Association, correspondences with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, excerpts from the letters the missionary wrote to their headquarters in Barbados, and accounts of the struggle to keep their mission going. I worked diligently at the collection for the first week and a half I was there.

Imagine my dismay when I arrived at the Archive on Tuesday morning to find it engulfed in smoke. There must have been eight fire trucks there. The front page of the Midweek Nation captured the tragedy: “Minister in the Prime Minister’s office with responsibility for culture Senator Dr Shantal Munro-Knight was visibly shaken as she visited the Archives Department in Black Rock, St Michael, yesterday morning where Block D was destroyed by a fire. Fortunately, the blaze, which fire officials said was ignited by a lightning strike late on Monday night, was contained to that building.” (June 19).

Fortunately for me, the file I was working on was saved since the archivist had pulled it out of Block D for me, and they’d placed it on my desk each morning. Unfortunately, hundreds of years of records were lost in that fire.

Chief archivist Ingrid Thompson spoke about the condition of the records: “We were able to salvage some records, but the majority of the records were destroyed. Some of these records included Vestry records, City Council Records, record of the Medical (Psychiatric) Hospital… Some of those documents we cannot retrieve.”

The archive was closed from Tuesday to Friday but a sympathetic archivist, Stacia Adams, feeling sorry towards me and seeing my dismay, allowed me to view the Bishop Court Diocesan Records on Thursday. I was the only member of the public allowed in the archive since Tuesday.

I had finished reading most of the documents and needed another day to complete reading the entire record. Because they had pulled out those documents for me, they were able to save at least one of those precious files from those that were burnt or water-soaked.

Although I researched Douglin’s life for the past 20 years, something deep in me—perhaps a writer’s unerring instinct—told me that I could not capture that life fully before I went to his homeland.

I never expected my search to end as it did. It made me think of my Trini archive and the wisdom of our local proverb, “When yo’ neighbour house is on fire, Wet yours”, and the imperative: “Digitise, digitise, digitise.”

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